Chris McGrath: Berbatov: the beautiful and the damned

The Last Word

The Golden Boot shared by Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov last season has malignly reversed the properties of the glass slipper. Whoever fits this shoe can go scrub the scullery floor.

One has been banished altogether; the other merely marginalised.

Tevez is being carted into the transfer window in infamy – at worst, boarded up like some gibbering, drooling freak for a distant, barbarian circus; at best, offered as a disappeared masterpiece to a private collector who doesn't ask questions. Berbatov has meanwhile waited, patient and dignified, until seizing the chance to show that he remains one of the most captivating talents in world football.

After four exquisite goals in two games, Manchester United must this weekend decide whether to extend the contract that expires at the end of the season. Otherwise Berbatov, 31 next month, can leave in the summer as a free agent – unless, perhaps, someone is able to hasten his emancipation in January. This week, Thierry Henry, a multiple Golden Boot winner, has been trying to establish whether he and his old club have declined at a workably parallel rate. But Berbatov to Bayer Leverkusen would surely be a more felicitous homecoming. Whereas Thierry Henry's pace was critical to his pomp, Berbatov's trademark languor means he will not depreciate as rapidly.

When his team-mates warm up, covered in synthetics and logos, you half-expect Berbatov to amble on to the field in a velvet dressing gown or smoking jacket. It seemed improper, as he waited to take his penalty against Wigan the other day, that the ball was not conveyed to the spot by a butler carrying a tray. Berbatov is depicted as the Premier League's Lord Lindsay, who practised his hurdling in Chariots Of Fire with a glass of champagne balanced on each obstacle. Obligingly, he has even been photographed with a cigarette – albeit not, so far, tapping one against an embossed silver case.

But this patrician image takes no account of his essential austerity. He has no airs, no braggadocio. Instead, his nonchalance reflects the secret knowledge that things envied by millions – talent, wealth – are ultimately so frivolous. When he scores, he looks embarrassed by the excitement around him, rarely managing more than a bashful smile. To the greatest artist among its present cast, the "Theatre of Dreams" is a theatre of the absurd.

And that's what makes Berbatov so bewitching – that his aristocratic play seems so consistent with his broader nature. For it is a perennial paradox of football that those who suggest a sublime aesthetic sense, on the field often turn out to be such perfect dolts. Sometimes a single, random dimension of his personality takes a man tragically beyond his competence – think only of Paul Gascoigne.

In Berbatov, however, the glory of his football is a function of the same, bleak intelligence that resists its trappings and deceits. There is seamless congruity between the player and the man.

Evidently, he finds it distasteful to dwell on a childhood of bread queues in a Bulgarian mining town. It is not, he urges, as though he endured those privations alone. But perhaps it was in poverty that he learnt his lordly perspective. Off the field, Berbatov turns his back on garish indulgence, returning faithfully to his homeland to support children's charities or till vegetable patches with his grandparents.

On the field, of course, his insouciance is fatally treated as indolence – even indifference. These days, after all, even the angels of Barcelona press manically all over the pitch. And a demonstrable willingness to leave your lungs on the grass tends to exculpate all manner of inadequacies in a footballer. Berbatov is duly represented as a "luxury" – and one, it seems, Sir Alex Ferguson can increasingly manage without.

Never mind that statistics belie the relative reputation for industry in, for instance, Tevez. The real problem is that sorcery of his kind is so often associated with vanity – when that is the very charge you could level at Berbatov.

All those sleights and feints are typically seen as the half-hearted gambles of players who stroll the margin between carefree and careless. To Berbatov, however, they represent the crucial, terrifying moment of alchemy – when the base metal of yeoman effort around him must effervesce into gold. And few players of such ambition cede possession so infrequently.

He is surrounded by sweating oarsmen. But the moment he receives the ball – and, typically, it will be no more than a moment, a fleeting touch – the wind changes direction and he unfurls a silken sail. If this is a decadent player, you mourn for the game.

No wonder he has that elegiac bearing, eyes so full of sorrow. When failing even to make the bench for the Champions League final, he watched disconsolately on television in the dressing room. He had played in one such final, aged just 21, for Leverkusen. Of course he cares. But his omission compounded Berbatov's sacrificial quality, as the beautiful and the damned.

So please, Sir Alex, release this mysterious, magical bird from his cage. Back in the Bundesliga, Berbatov would be able to inspire some of the most exuberant young players in Europe, while remaining calm in the eye of their storm. At 34, Raul, for example, has scored 10 goals in 17 league starts for Schalke this season.

Berbatov deserves much more than a poignant supporting role, more than the tantalising vignettes of recent days and weeks – as when the Wigan keeper assumed a stance of literal obeisance, propped on to his knees, to watch the penalty roll past. After all, it is not as if this Cinderella actually wants to go to the ball. Not when there is space to run into instead.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable